The Chinese word “小姐(xiao jie)” is one of the most frequently used words in everyday conversation and you must learn it at the early stage of Mandarin learning. “小姐(xiao jie)” means “Miss” or “a young lady”. You will often hear this word at restaurants in China because people call waiters in this way; “小姐(xiao jie)!”
There are lots of restaurants in big cities in China and the majority of the waiters are young Chinese ladies who came from the countryside to earn money. Their working condition is not perfect: a long working time, low salary. However, I am not going to criticise here. Instead, I want to focus on language interest.
“小(xiao)” means ‘small’ or ‘young’, and “姐(jie)” means ‘sister’, so “小姐(xiao jie)” literally means ‘a young lady’ in Mandarin. It also works like the word ‘Miss’ in English when it follows a woman’s name.
The guests in restaurants in China normally use this word “小姐(xiao jie)!” to get the waiters attention, even when the waiter is not a very young woman. I think it is because of cultural custom. There have been many young ladies who are working in restaurants. That is why they use this term as a custom when they want to ask something to them.
However, as a foreigner, I did not comfortably use this word to someone who is not young at all. One day, I have asked one of my native Chinese friends; “How old should 小姐(xiao jie) be up to?” He said, “I don’t know.”
When we were in a restaurant in China, he called “小姐(xiao jie)!” to the lady who was standing by to order the food. The lady turned around to us and we realised she was not very young. Anyway, my friend ordered some dishes with her. After she left, he secretly said to me, “Well, it was not 小姐(xiao jie), it was 大姐(da jie: big sister)!”
By the way, there is a new word introduced: 服务员(Fúwùyuán) is a translated word of “waiter” in English. It is used for waiters no matter of the person’s age or gender. However, people use that term in relatively expensive restaurants or hotels. So it may not be suitable for the workers in a small food stand in the country.
People say “小姐(xiao jie)!” in Mandarin at the restaurant. How about Cantonese?
In the restaurants in Hong Kong or most parts of the Canton region ( when they speak Cantonese) in China, people usually say “靚女 (leng3 neoi5)” to women and “靚仔 (leng3 zai2)” to men.
“靚leng3” is beautiful, pretty or handsome, good-looking. “女neoi5” means a woman, and “仔zai2” means a man or a boy. So, “靚女 (leng3 neoi5)” is a beautiful woman while “靚仔 (leng3 zai2)” means a good-looking guy. In the restaurants, everybody calls waiters “靚女 (leng3 neoi5)” or “靚仔 (leng3 zai2)”, even if you wouldn’t want to describe them as ‘beautiful’ outside of the restaurant. There are no ugly women or men working in the restaurants in Cantonese world.
Additionally, “靚仔 (leng3 zai2)” also means beautifully streamed rice or a minibus as slang in Hong Kong.
Note: In a restaurant in Hong Kong, it is not rude to shout and call waiters, although it is not polite in most of the Western countries. When you are in a local restaurant in Hong Kong, don’t be shy, please. Raise your hand and call them “靚女 (leng3 neoi5)” or “靚仔 (leng3 zai2)” or just “Waiter!” Otherwise, you would never be fed.